Saturday, November 22, 2014

tumblin' down

. . And the walls come a-tumblin’ down . .

-- African-American spiritual

We’re on our way to Canaan, to the New Jerusalem.

-- European-American spiritual

When justice rolls down like waters, I ask myself, when tyrants and bullies are overthrown and the good guys win, what will the world look like? We think we know, but we don't. We don't know because we think we know. We work with tropes, linguistic models of transformation, but we need to interrogate those models. My love is like a red red rose, but she will not appreciate it if I spray her with pesticide or prune her in the winter. Lions might some day lie down with lambs, but will the lambs then sleep well, or should they? We must search our poems of liberation for their actual consequences. There is a boundary beyond which we cannot press our metaphors. As we stand at that boundary, our imperfection of purpose is exposed.

This kind of thinking is not fun. It’s about metrics rather than proclamation, statistics not rhetoric, prose not verse. Or rather, it’s like telling your dream to the analyst, both of you knowing that the dream is already in its Secondary Revision, and now you’re aware that the walls of the room didn’t meet in the corners, and you can’t actually fly. So now in our mortality, our limitation of strength and stamina, and in the face of history’s unfathomable creativity for violence, by what standard shall we measure our hoped-for resolution of American original sin?

The book of Exodus became a world-wide trope of liberation. Enslaved people, the story says, must walk out of the enslaver's authority. Moses, supported by accelerating divine violence, convinces the Pharoah of Egypt to "let my people go." The enslaved Hebrews cross the sea, vacating the place where their labor had been stolen. Then Moses learns what his real problem is: his own people would rather eat from the stewpots of Egypt than face the wilderness. So begins the forty years of wandering, in which the covenant between God and the chosen people is redefined. The generation of escape, including Moses, will die before the Israelites come into their Promise. What precisely is that Promise?

I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation. But we have got to remember now that Joshua still had a job to do.

-- Barack Obama at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007

Dr. King said the night before he died that he had gone to the mountain-top and “seen the Promised Land,” but by casting himself as Moses he assigned the realization of promise to another generation, a “Joshua generation.” Barack Obama, in his progress toward presidency, flirted with the role of Joshua.

But the Joshua-trope has not taken hold, and not merely because black liberation is incomplete. It fails because it is unsuitable. Joshua's "job" is not to liberate but to exterminate. He leads us not into right relation with the oppressor but into violence toward the innocent. Instead of establishing justice in the land of their oppression, the Israelites inflict new injustice on people in another land who had done them no harm. The lightning war of Joshua has served as a manual for the advance of Europeans into the American West (“empty” except for Indians), for the trek of the Boer Piet Retief into the interior of South Africa (“empty” except for Zulu and Xhosa), and models the expansion of Germany into Lebensraum (“empty” except for racially inferior Slavs). "You must doom them to destruction," says Yahweh to his shock troops, "Grant them no terms, and give them no quarter" (Deut. 7:1-2, Tanakh).* No people standing in the way of the formerly oppressed wants to be designated as Canaanites. The often-sung Battle of Jericho, whose walls came a-tumblin' down, is no more a freedom-fight than was Wounded Knee. The Osage Indian theologian Robert Allen Warrior warns us that "Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror."**

"Thank God it never happened," said my Old Testament professor, and many a rabbi joins in the sentiment with a sigh of relief. Neither archaeology nor the deuteronomic history as a whole support the violent boast of Joshua's book. Those pesky Kenites and Kenizzites and Kadmonites and Hittites and Jebusites, not to mention the Philistines, were not exterminated. They survived to trouble the kingdom for the rest of its existence.

And even if the story were true, it would still be unsuitable. Our formerly enslaved brothers and sisters did not walk out and go elsewhere, as many a white supremacist hoped they would, but stayed here to claim their freedom among us. And that's why their liberation still lingers. There was no getting rid of our scarlet letters. The Pharoah and those he enslaved must figure out how to live together.

Every American should thank God that Joshua was not our general, and the Civil Rights Campaign was in no way like the book that bears his name. White Pharoahs didn't get to export their sins and inflict the consequences elsewhere. We stole the land of Indians and the labor of Africans, and now we must live with those we stole from, and they must live with us. It has taken, and will continue to take, some reckoning and repentance, some forgiveness and restitution. The true Land of Promise, the land where we hope to live in peace, is the very land where this story started. The New Jerusalem is Egypt transformed, with hearts broken and born again under divine sovereignty.

*Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to The Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 285.

**"Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians," Christianity in Crisis, 49 (September 11, 1989): 261-265

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